I’ll admit to feeling somewhat skeptical when it was reported that Fulham had paid fractionally under £8m for the services of Michael Hector from Chelsea. The prospect of dropping a defender, who had been short of any serious match practice for six months, into the heat of a Championship promotion push when the Whites had little margin for error if they wanted to challenge for the top two positions seemed somewhat high risk. The Jamaican international might me wince a little with an error on his debut that allowed Aston Villa back into the FA Cup tie, but since then he has hardly put a foot wrong.
Hector does have recent pedigree at this level. He finished last season in outstanding form for Sheffield Wednesday and was reportedly close to moving to Hillsborough on a permanent basis. Fulham’s defensive issues have been well documented this season, with all too familiar lapses undermining Scott Parker’s laudable aim of returning to the top flight by playing progressive and pretty football. It was a bold call to offer a new signing the chance to tighten things up at the back and the results have been immediate. Fulham had kept two clean sheets in ten games before his arrival and have now managed two on the bounce.
Last night’s victory over Middlesbrough illustrated his importance. He was commanding from the off, organising the defence in a manner that one might have expected Alfie Mawson to do. It was arguably Hector’s aerial aptitude that meant the visitors had little joy in front of goal. The new signing won everything in the air against Rudy Gestede, clearing his lines effectively over and over again, and was impressive on the floor as well – no more so than when he timed a late tackle to perfection inside the penalty area as precious seconds ticked away. This was the dominant performance of a man with hundreds of club appearances under his belt, not somebody making only a third start.
There will be tougher tests to come and it is far to say that Boro only belatedly threatened to get in behind Fulham once Ashley Fletcher came off the bench with ten minutes to play. Hector’s assuredness is encouraging, though, if only because the type of victories he has inspired – accurately described as ‘gritty’ by Parker – are just the sort of successes required if the Whites are to make the top two this term. The new man’s distribution doesn’t look out of place in a side that looks to dominate possession, either, and so composed was his display you could make a case for him rivalling goalscorer Anthony Knockaert for the man of the match award.
The addition of Hector and Terence Kongolo, who watched from the Cottage balcony only a matter of hours after completing his loan move from Huddersfield, so early in the January transfer window gives Parker the sort of strength in depth defensively that he had been lacking to do that. His side can more easily switch to three centre halves – something the Fulham boss has used as a tactical tweak later on in games regularly this season – and, in the absence of Aleksandar Mitrovic, will need to be more miserly in front of Marek Rodak in any case. There’s a long way to go, but the man already dubbed ‘Virgil van Mike’ has already played in part in putting Fulham right back in the automatic promotion picture.